Do apostrophes matter? The great greengrocer debate


There was a big fuss a while back about a council in the Midlands that decided to drop possessive apostrophes from its street signs. Apparently the task of deciding where and when to include apostrophes proved too intellectually challenging for the council.

The logic behind the decision went something like this. ‘Our current use of apostrophes is inconsistent (because we’ve never quite understood where to put them), so we’re going to make it consistent by dropping apostrophes altogether (because we still don’t quite understand where to put them and it’s making our brains ache just thinking about it). The most important thing is to be consistent (even if it’s consistently wrong); consistency is more desirable than accuracy.’

It made me wonder if, on the same basis, the council would drop the decimal points from the council tax bills?

Does it really matter, some people ask? Well, yes, if you want to make yourself understood in writing. Greengrocers’ reputed fondness for using the apostrophe to create a plural (tomato‘s, apple‘s etc).has not been reviled for nothing. Like it or not, dropping, or misplacing, the apos can change the meaning of a sentence.

Here’s an example. A sign in the window of a local shop proclaims ‘Ladies Jeans £5‘. Wow, £5, that’s cheap for a pair of jeans isn’t it? And not a bad price for some ladies either. In fact, you could buy the ladies and ask them to lend you their jeans – that would be even better value for money.

A local pest controller opted to evade the problem altogether by advertising ‘Wasp Nests Removed’ on its billboard, thus neatly avoiding any controversy over where to stick the apos. (Though a pedant would argue that it would be unusual to find a nest that was home to only one wasp, so Wasp’s would never be an option.)

When I was a trainee newspaper reporter, I worked for lecturers and editors whose sarcasm knew no bounds when confronted with the enormity of apostrophe misplacement. When you’ve been stared at and identified as a fool by an old-school editor whose eye can open an oyster at 40 paces, you sit up and take notice of these things.

Here’s a fun example of how dropping the possessive apos can lead to some big problems in comprehension. It’s a real-life situation; I haven’t made it up just to make a point, honest, guv.

John, the landlord of my friend Kim’s local pub, rented a room from Mark, one of his customers. So Mark was the landlord’s landlord. Are you with me so far? Good, keep concentrating.

Now, Mark was selling his house and planning to buy in another area, taking John with him, but until the purchase went through they were looking to rent somewhere. I suggested that for a laugh Kim could rent her spare room to Mark and John, so that she could say she was the landlord’s landlord’s landlord – or indeed, the landlords‘ landlord. Drop the possessives from this scenario and an already baffling concept becomes totally incomprehensible.

Perhaps fortunately, since I admit the whole idea does make one strain a brain cell or two, Kim turned down the suggestion, saying she didn’t want to be anyone’s landlord, let alone a landlord and his landlord. Three landlords in one terraced house, plus the various suitcases, dirty pants, apostrophes and so on that would accompany them, would simply be too much, she said. So there, she said, before getting on with peeling the potato’s in her ladies jeans.

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